Shayla Love Tackles the Biggest Taboo of All

Wesley Ham

Shayla Love

Framing pedophilia as a mental health issue might seem risky. But it’s increasingly supported by evidence, as science journalist Shayla Love explored for Vice, in the August 24 article “Pedophilia Is a Mental Health Issue. It’s Still Not Treated as One.

This isn’t the first time Love has covered a contentious health-related topic. But in this case, the very framing of the story as a health topic got people’s hackles up. Describing pedophilia as a mental health concern raises uncomfortable questions about sympathy and the humanity of those who identify as pedophiles.

Popular culture and public discourse often treat pedophilia as a practice rather than a type of sexual attraction—as if it’s inevitable that people who experience attraction to children will harm children. Yet, as Love found, that’s not the case. The understandable emotiveness of the topic has limited the understanding of pedophilia, including how to reduce its effects in evidence-backed ways. Thus, some people trying to manage their own intolerable attraction have resorted to shady websites and treatments, including physical castration.

Love, a staff writer for Vice, was motivated by a recent research milestone and the urgency of taking a scientific, harm-reduction approach to understanding and treating pedophilia. She spoke with Christine Ro about her methods of sourcing interviews with pedophiles, how her own experiences with a mental health disorder helped her to approach this story in a nuanced way, and the violent backlash that followed her story’s publication. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

 

Was the news peg for this story the April study on degarelix, the drug that has reduced the testosterone levels and sexual desire of people who experience sexual attraction to children?

That was the peg. I saw the press release for the JAMA Psychiatry study. It caught my attention right away. It struck me as remarkable that this was the first randomized placebo-controlled trial for a treatment for pedophiles. And so when I reached out to the researcher, Christoffer Rahm, and heard about some of the barriers and difficulties that people with pedophilia have accessing treatment and how difficult it is to conduct the research, that’s really where the framing of the story came from.

How did you find the interviewees who identify as pedophiles?

The story is about people who are trying to get help and don’t have access to help. We don’t really know what kind of treatment works best for them. This is really about the gap. It’s not about people who have committed a crime. So that was a specific type of person I was looking for. And to do that, I asked Rahm if he could connect me to any of the people that were in his studies. He contacted several people and gave them my email address, for if they wanted to speak to me about their experience. Two people from his past and ongoing pedophilia studies reached out to me.

After that I turned to some pedophilia support groups. One of them is called Virtuous Pedophiles. Luke Malone wrote an amazing article about pedophiles that are minors back in 2014. He wrote about Virtuous Pedophiles back then. So after reading his piece, I reached out to Virtuous Pedophiles and they let me join their forum. When I joined the forum, I made a post that said that I was writing an article for Vice; it was going to be about access to different kinds of treatments. And I was very specifically interested in pharmacological treatments that people had tried before and how they got them. I got several responses from that.

And then from Virtuous Pedophiles, I also got attached to this group ASAP [Association for Sexual Abuse Prevention], which is trying to be sort of a triage service to help connect pedophiles to compassionate mental health providers.

It all took a long time to come about.

What were the interview techniques and formats that you used?

I did some over phone and some over email. On my end, they were similar, despite the medium: I was really here to learn about what it’s like to have these thoughts and not be able to get help and desperately be trying not to act on those thoughts. And so that meant that I couldn’t go into the interviews with judgment about what they were thinking.

Of course, I think that child molestation is horrible. It wasn’t very comfortable for me, obviously, to hear about somebody being attracted to a 6- or 7-year-old child. But when you sort of pair that with hearing about how isolated they feel, how desperately they don’t want to commit a crime, how they’ve been turned away by therapists before, how they’re desperately trying to order chemical castration drugs online because they can’t get them from a doctor—once you start to get into that whole backstory, I think the interview process becomes, not easier, but the story becomes more clear.

People were very concerned about anonymity. So there was a lot of talking through encrypted services like ProtonMail.

Does Vice have a specific policy about using pseudonyms for interviewees?

Essentially, it’s when providing somebody’s identity would threaten either their life or their livelihood or something equivalent. In this case there was little discussion on our end about whether or not the pseudonym was warranted.

But there were actually two people who use their real names; they’re the ones that are associated with this group ASAP. I think it’s quite brave of them to have their real names out there. They said that they wanted that.

Were there any ways to verify that the people you spoke with hadn’t ever committed sexual crimes against children?

It’s tough because you have to sort of take people at their word. Virtuous Pedophiles is a community of people who are committed to and pledge to not molest children. For the people that we talked to, I feel confident that given the distress over how badly they didn’t want to do anything, that really came across in a way that felt true to us.

“… We need a diversity of research, so that people have many different research-backed options to consider…. In some ways, it makes the story harder to tell. But with mental health, I think emphasizing heterogeneity is always the right answer.”

Do you have any tips for science journalists about evaluating the evidence for or against certain treatments, when a key problem with fairly novel research, for instance on pedophilia, is that there’s so little of it?

It’s really tough. I sort of skirted that issue with this piece, because I think that what we found from the reporting is not necessarily that one treatment works better than the other, but that we need more research on treatments. I mean, this randomized trial was great. And it seemed to have modest but significant effects that help reduce some people’s urges. And from the qualitative data, people felt a lot better, and they felt like their mind was more clear when they were on the drug. That’s great. But I would never say, and we don’t say in the piece, that degarelix is the drug for pedophilia. I think with anything like this, that’s so complex and has so many unknowns, that the treatment is never going to be the same for every person.

I think my tip would be that, especially when it comes to things like mental health or cognitive psychology, there will likely never be a single medication. And so what I think is really important is just emphasizing how much we need a diversity of research, so that people have many different research-backed options to consider. That could be several different drugs or therapeutic options. It’s so much more complicated. And in some ways, it makes the story harder to tell. But with mental health, I think emphasizing heterogeneity is always the right answer.

Was there anything that surprised you in the course of reporting?

Something that I learned in writing the story that sort of complicated my ideas is that only about 50 percent of child molesters are actually true pedophiles. That really challenged my idea not so much of pedophilia, but of child molestation.

It makes me feel like two things need to happen. One is that we need to understand the best treatments for people who are attracted to children. But number two is we need to understand why people who aren’t attracted to children are molesting children, if we really want to take a preventative approach to reduce the number of children who are molested. Those issues have more to do with complicated social factors, like substance abuse or power dynamics within families.

And this made me feel hopeful: talking to a young man who was 22, who was thinking about medication but then didn’t need it in the end, when he found the Virtuous Pedophiles support group. He’s young, but he said to me that he feels really confident that he’s never going to molest a child. And really what he needed was just that community support and to know that he wasn’t the only person in the world thinking these thoughts.

To know that something as simple as community support and acceptance can help a young person feel confident that they’re never going to commit this crime—and they feel hopeful that they can have a meaningful life—I was really moved and felt surprisingly hopeful about that.

Even the very premise of taking preventative modern approaches obviously rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Do you think that’s because the belief is so persistent that this cannot be prevented? Or is just the idea of it so distasteful that people aren’t even willing to engage with it?

“I got a lot of really angry emails after the piece came out, from people saying I was a pedophile sympathizer and saying that the only treatment for them is a bullet or something like that.”

I got a lot of really angry emails after the piece came out, from people saying I was a pedophile sympathizer and saying that the only treatment for them is a bullet or something like that. I think that people are just so morally upset at the idea that somebody could be attracted to children. And I understand that instinct, but I think that ignoring it doesn’t make it not real.

Is it your normal policy to not engage with the negative or especially the violent responses to your articles?

Yeah, I don’t engage with violent emails. Most of the negative emails that I got were from people who seemed to be so upset just by the concept of pedophilia that they clearly didn’t read the article. Instead, they wanted to tell me that pedophiles should be killed, or that I should be killed. It was quite intense for almost a week. I’ve never experienced anything like that from a story before. It was quite alarming.

We had to contact our security team and I had to do some security measures to make sure that my information wasn’t available online. I closed my DMs on Twitter for a little bit. We have this service called DeleteMe, which removes your information from white pages–type websites. I had been meaning to do that for a while and just hadn’t gotten around to it. So I signed up for that.

But seeing how quick people were to talk about shooting somebody that they’ve never met reinforced the reporting that I did: that we’ve created a society in which if somebody has these thoughts, they cannot talk to anybody about them, even if they’ve never committed a crime. And once you can’t talk about it, I just worry that somebody is set on a path or ultimately will act on their thoughts because they have no support. They have no options.

I was talking to my partner afterwards about how some pedophiles started to reach out to me because they had seen some negative comments on Twitter. They were all really nice and sweet to me. And my partner commented on how pedophiles were being nicer to me than the “reply guy.”

I did get some nice emails too, including from several people who are sexual assault survivors and said that it was really hard for them to read, but they wish that the person who assaulted them had access to treatment.

When I was getting these emails from people who were so upset about even just the topic of this story, I did have a moment where I wondered, why am I able to not have that reaction to these people who are telling me they’re attracted to kids? And I think part of the reason is that I have OCD. I think, as a person with OCD, a lot of my treatment is recognizing that thoughts will come up—and you don’t necessarily want those thoughts to come up—but they don’t actually have to interfere with your life. And a lot of OCD therapy is about separating thought and action. I’m not comparing OCD to pedophilia at all, but I think for me, as a person who’s been in therapy for a long time, this notion that you can have a thought and not let it dictate your actions, and sort of live your life anyway, is more accessible to me.

 

Christine Ro is a freelancer who writes about science mainly for BBC Future and Forbes.

Courtesy of Christine Ro

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